“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and
enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela, an antiapartheid freedom fighter, said this as
he fought for the rights of his people. During apartheid, the blacks were treated incredibly
poorly, and it was a dark time in South African history, an era of suppression and racism.
However, the whites suffered from constant fear of rebellion from the blacks even as they were
trying to suppress them, and were never truly “free”. Nadine Gordimer’s short story “Once Upon
a Time” portrays how everyone suffers under a system such as apartheid, through setting,
conflict, and characterization.
Firstly, the changes in the setting show how apartheid negatively affects the white
neighborhoods. To begin, the neighborhood changes drastically over time. What once was a
peaceful area becomes a pseudoconcentration camp, covered with “...an array of different
varieties of security fences, walls and devices”(42); so that there was no room for enjoyment and
relaxation. Then there is the house of the family, which is slowly covered with more dangerous
security devices, which end up harming the family themselves. The atmosphere changes from a
quiet, peaceful suburb to a very tense situation, as “The alarms [call] to one another across the
gardens in shrills and bleats…”(40). Apartheid causes people to create dangerous and
uncomfortable situations out of fear.
Next, the conflicts show how apartheid creates struggles for everyone. Throughout the
story the blacks fight against the apartheid law, wanting to win back their freedom, as their
children were being shot and killed. The whites are also in conflict as well, living in constant fear
that the black people will break into their homes and attack them, causing them to continuously
upgrade their security. Lastly, there is inner conflict; the little boy’s mother, who wishes to help
the blacks, as “...[she] could never see anyone go hungry”(41), tries to send out bread and tea,
but the maid and the husband convince her to stop. Apartheid creates conflicts for everybody,
with fear, anger,and guilt.
Finally, the characterizations in the story portray how everyone is a victim in apartheid.
For example, there is the maid, who is a caring but paranoid black woman. In fear of her own